Lost Lantern recently launched its Single Distillery Series, which included three whiskies… two of them coming from Whiskey Del Bac in Tucson, Arizona. The distillery’s unique mesquite smoking process for making whiskey is deeply rooted in the culture of the Southwest… and in the gastronomic heritage of Tucson in particular. Tucson, with a population of over a half a million and a metro area of a million people, has its own unique and distinct culture. Yet we’ve found that it’s a city that’s not very familiar to people across the United States–especially on the East Coast, it isn’t well-known in the way that San Francisco or Portland, Oregon (both similarly sized cities!) are. Luckily for us, our own California state manager Drew Record originally hails from Tucson and has a deep love for the city. Hence this insider’s travel guide to Tucson. If you love Whiskey Del Bac and are curious about visiting the city it calls home, this is the right place to start! Now here’s Drew:
A Whiskey Lover’s Tucson Travel Guide
Let’s start by first acknowledging the limitations of crafting a good travel guide. Nothing will ever be comprehensive enough for some, and the bias of the writer will certainly be on display in what is included and excluded from any guide. I’ll give you my bona fides up front. I was born in Tucson in the middle of the eighties. I spent nearly 30 years watching it grow and change before I moved to Oakland. As a child what I knew as the geographic boundaries of the town moved every few years. Tucson expanded north to meet neighborhoods that had sprung up on former orange groves in unincorporated land. The town of South Tucson eventually butted against Tucson proper. Staying out east with my grandparents meant being away from the hustle of town.
On one of these sojourns to Ma and Pa Kettle’s house, I met Sir Paul McCartney at the grocery store, because it was basically the only store on that side of the Pantano wash. For those of you unfamiliar with desert washes, we are talking about a dry river bed. During monsoon season the wash would often overfill and flood for several days and that would serve to isolate that part of town. Just a mountain range, a rising current and a small triangle of desert. He was in the ice cream aisle and I, being a rather precocious child, thought it best to tell him I preferred his work with the Beatles to that of Wings. A bold opinion, I know. Macca, if by any chance you are reading this I am deeply sorry for being that kid, and I have to say you handled it all with grace and aplomb. I’m still not sure where my grandparents were during this episode, but it was the early nineties so who knows.
In high school I explored every crevice of town I could in my old rusted Jeep Cherokee. I went to the University of Arizona in Tucson. I learned to walk backwards so I could give tours of campus, in fact. I worked at some of Tucson’s finest resorts, which strangely enough are mostly located just outside of the city limits. I opened a restaurant just off campus serving Southern Arizona farm raised foods. I was around when downtown finally stuck the landing after many years of fitful development. While my friends would say that I missed some of the coolest new places in the intervening decade since I left, I’ve been back often enough to sprinkle in a few newer recommendations. However, you will see this guide tends to stick to some of the places that have been around for a very long time, like the desert itself.
Tucson Travel Guide: The Details
Getting to Tucson
Sure, Tucson has an international airport, but to truly enjoy the town is to drive into and around Tucson. Preferably with the windows down. Hopefully not in the dead of summer. If you are coming south from Phoenix and you’ve got a little extra time, take the historic Route 80 out of Mesa. It’ll take you past the Superstition Mountains and through some of the prettiest saguaro fields you’ll see. If you are coming from the east, you’ll see about a thousand yellow billboards for “The Thing” between Tucson and El Paso. Stop for a snack, but maybe save your money on the tour.
For tunes while driving around you could do worse than listening to albums that namedrop Tucson. The Beatles, Paul Simon, Gin Blossoms and the Pretenders have all sung their way around town. You could also dive into the career of Tucson’s native daughter Linda Rondstadt. I would recommend her album Trio with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris as a great jumping off place. Or if you want some real local flavor check out Tracy Shedd’s 2008 album Cigarettes and Smoke Machines, which was the soundtrack to many hot summer nights on some dusty patio, waiting for the day’s heat to dissipate enough to sleep, drinking a cheap Mexican beer and staring at the stars.
Staying in Tucson
While I worked at beautiful resorts in the foothills of the Catalina mountains I would always recommend actually staying in town. The Arizona Inn was built in the 1930’s by Arizona’s first congresswoman, and it opened as a way to show off the beautiful furniture being built as part of a depression era work project. Today it is an oasis nestled in the middle of town. Even if you don’t stay, the grounds are incredible and there is a piano bar where you can get a drink and relax. Downtown has some wonderful new hotels but if you don’t mind noise then stay at the historic Hotel Congress. You won’t even have to buy tickets to whatever band is playing, since you’ll b e able to hear them through the floorboards. If you are opting for a vacation rental there are some beautiful mid-century stunners in midtown. Try the Sam Hughes or Poet’s Square neighborhood for sun baked brick exteriors and white washed adobe courtyards.
Things To Do In Tucson
I’ll of course point you towards one of our many articles about our friends at Whiskey Del Bac, one of the premiere American Single Malt distilleries in the United States. They offer public tours and if you are stopping by, tell them Lost Lantern sent you!
But you probably want to see some nature too. If you didn’t drive down highway 79 on the old Route 80 to get to town, then you’ll need to head to Saguaro National Park to truly take in the beauty of the Sonoran Desert [editor’s note: Lost Lantern cofounders Nora and Adam LOVE Saguaro National Park and spend a day or two there every time they go to Tucson!]. Because Tucson is surrounded on all sides by mountain ranges you can either go east or west to catch this non contiguous national park. If you go west you should probably check out the Sonoran Desert Museum as well. A nature conservancy with a focus on showing guests the flora and fauna of the desert.
If you go east you should stop by Pima Air & Space Museum. Because of Tucson’s dry climate, the Air Force has a lot of planes parked out on the southeast side of town. Tucked in between numerous government boneyards is a collection of 400 historic airplanes stretched across a multi acre campus. JFK’s former Air Force One and an SR71 Blackbird are just some of the highlights.
When you get back to the hotel check the schedule for the Rialto Theatre as they often get all your favorite indie acts that are trying to play a gig or two outside of their non-compete area between Coachella weekends. Whenever I’m staying somewhere new I usually pull up Atlas Obscura to see what odd corner of town I’m missing out on. Their entries for Tucson do not disappoint from the old Lisa Frank Factory to a Sinner’s Shrine to an incredible collection of gems and minerals in a university basement.
Where To Eat In Tucson
Wow. This is the part of the guide I have been thinking about the longest. I used to have lists categorized by meat type and cooking style for tacos. Places where the burrito was king, and where the tamale was the sleeper hit. Sadly the march of time, accelerated by the pandemic, has closed many of my favorite jaunts. As of the time of writing this my number one go-to overall taqueria recommendation when friends were only visiting Tucson for a day is closed for renovations because someone drove a car through the side of the building. Maybe by the time you get to Tucson Taqueria Pico de Gallo will have reopened for business. If so, don’t forget to get a signature pico de gallo (fresh fruit cup with chile powder for a desert dessert.)
I will tell you a few things you shouldn’t miss while you are in town and you can do a little digging for yourself. While in many parts of Mexico you would be laughed out of town for opting for a flour tortilla, but in Tucson the flour reigns supreme. Introduced half a century ago by the Spanish, wheat was a perfect winter crop for an area with thousands of years of agricultural experience. In the Sonoran Desert wheat adapted to the unique climate and the style that persists is one with an incredible elasticity. It is actually this stretch that gave rise to the burrito, or little burro (donkey), so-called because it was able to carry so much more than its small size would belie. Opt for the flour tortillas, but also try the corn tortillas and probably seek out the indigenous style of frybread that can be found at places like La Indita. When you are fully enamored with these thinly layered beauties stop by Mendez Tortillas and Bakery to pack a few dozen in your suitcase for later.
Other things to remember about Tucson as you are searching out places to nosh: The chimichanga was purportedly invented here when someone dropped a burrito in the deep fryer and said something mildly vulgar about it being burnt. You don’t have to go to where it was invented to try one. Find a place with carne seca (an air dried beef that is reconstituted with a chile sauce upon preparation) on the menu and order one for the table. If you are still hungry while walking around downtown or fourth avenue later in the evening follow your nose to any of the dozen carts selling street tacos and sonoran dogs. Do yourself a favor and indulge in this bacon wrapped dawg, nestled in an impossible soft bolillo bun (usually used for tortas and other sandwiches), piled with beans, salsa, mustard, onions. Don’t forget to ask for the whole roasted jalapeño to crown the heaping mass. While I favor this form of exploration sometimes you just want to make sure you have one really killer spot booked while on a trip. If you are looking to impress, or just want to try some of the finest farm cuisine Tucson has to offer grab a reservation for BATA. Everything is cooked over an open wood flame and highlights ingredients from the state and region. Book early and make sure you bring extra people so you can share a little bit of everything.
Where To Drink In Tucson
I tend to be of two minds when it comes to recommending bars. There are places you go for drinks and there are places to go that you can happen to drink at. Mind you the latter kind of bars don’t make bad drinks and the former aren’t also unique spaces in and of themselves, it’s just you need to know your priorities when walking in and ordering. A few infamous Tucson bars have closed in recent years, RIP Bashful Bandit (which played a pivotal on screen role in the truly terrible future western dystopian film Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man) and Meet Rack.
Still standing however is one of the coolest time machines in the world. Opened in 1961 and pretty much unchanged since then, is The Shelter. The walls are festooned with Kennedy memorabilia and the windowless facade really makes you feel like you are stepping into a Cold War era bomb shelter. The bar team are some of the friendliest neighborhood bartenders you will come across and the place boasts a killer list of infused spirits that they’ve been making since before Dale DeGroff stepped foot behind the iconic bar at The Rainbow Room, kicking off the American craft cocktail revolution.
For a more updated approach to cocktails I would recommend a pair of former funeral parlors. You can go to the basement of the former Reilly Family Funeral home for a drink at the aptly named Tough Luck Club. This basement would have been your first stop if you were recently deceased. Now it’s your can’t miss Tucson cocktail spot. Check out the incredible art on their ever-changing menus, grab a pizza upstairs or a beer in the garage where the hearses used to park. Grab your handbook for the recently deceased and head down the street to Owl’s Club in a beautifully ornate building with wooden floors and stucco niches that also used to be a former funeral home, though this one more recently than Reilly Family Funeral. You will be visiting for the first time, so you likely won’t have the deja-vu I did when first entering the bar, instantly remembering my previous visit as a child to the space was for my bubbe Julie’s funeral. She would be happy to know you can get a gimlet (her favorite) and take in the serene beauty of the place. I’ll drink to that!
When To Visit Tucson
The beginning of May happens to be when the International Mariachi Conference takes place and while it is warm, it is likely not the extreme 100 degree temperatures that will creep in later in the month and through the rest of the summer. February brings thousands of international gem and mineral dealers to town as well as the Rodeo. Prices for hotels will be higher but it is a pretty amazing spectacle if you are on the hunt for some cool rocks! September and October are my favorite months to visit, the temperatures are beginning to dip back into the 90’s and even the 80’s but the snowbirds have yet to come back from their northern summer retreats. November is probably the coolest time to visit as the All Souls Procession takes over downtown Tucson and the Barrio Hollywood with an incredible parade and celebration coinciding with dia de muertos. I think that within a few years, All Souls in Tucson will be on international travel lists with the likes of carnival in Rio or Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Don’t miss out.